John Riordan: Echoes of US concussion woe coming down Irish tracks

Generally, the NFL has moved on from the PR crises of the mid-2010s. Are those days ahead for rugby?
John Riordan: Echoes of US concussion woe coming down Irish tracks

BANGED UP: Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins sits on the turf during the first half of the game against the Buffalo Bills at Hard Rock Stadium last weekend. 

On Saturday, I was walking through sunny, bustling Greenwich Village with a great old friend from the newspaper trade. He's never off duty, always peppering you with questions and offering his own analysis.

"What about concussion in sport? That's getting to be a huge story back home," he proffered as we navigated the tourists and oddballs of Washington Square Park and Bleecker Street.

Initially, I thought how very 2014 this discussion was. I had to dust off a few half-assed takes from the days when the NFL was beset by dramatic lawsuits, suicides and domestic assaults which forced many of us to do some cursory research on what CTE stands for (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and what actually happens to the brain when two peak-performing American footballers collide into each other at a silly rate of knots.

My friend's concern is personal; a young relative is rising through the rugby ranks in Ireland and the juxtaposition of athletic ambition and harsh medical reality has been a developing topic in the rugby nations since the US highlighted their issues. Rugby's concerns rose right around the time that players found new edges in what can be achieved in speed, strength and agility. Not to mention in the sort of fearlessness which grows out of the desperation to succeed against the challenges of increasingly competitive environments.

Generally, the NFL has moved on from the PR crises of the mid-2010s when the medium- and long-term effects of repetitive head traumas churned out national scandals. Soon we became weary of these deeply tragic stories and the powers that be on Park Avenue needed to focus their efforts on the social justice demands of their majority black league when the country unravelled in 2020.

And to be fair, steps were taken to at least attempt to offset the root causes of long-term brain damage. Strict rules around tackling during pre-season were further enforced and, just this year, players were made to add extra layers over their helmets for when training sessions needed to move up a notch in pace and brutality.

Measures taken and wrongs acknowledged in American football but, I pointed out to my friend by way of caveat, let's not forget that against the wishes of the players union, the NFL successfully added an extra round of games in 2021. An extra chance to cause damage and an added threat to any hope of a happy retirement.

About 24 hours later, those of us who have found ourselves jaded by the brain injury black clouds, luxuriated in a thrilling contest between a pair of divisional rivals who have suddenly and relatively recently emerged out of obscurity and out of the shadow of the New England Patriots: the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins.

Empathy be damned, for the most part, but even this one was a tough watch. Miami is too hot for football in September and players were visibly struggling. But the abiding controversial visual of the day was a slow-motion replay of the increasingly adept Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa rising unsteadily from a first-half tackle that necessitated a concussion evaluation in the medical facility of the home team’s dressing room.

He reemerged for the third quarter and guided his team to an entertaining and somewhat surprising win. But the attention quickly reverted back to his deeply disturbing inability to put one foot in front of another as he desperately attempted to convince everyone and himself that the Bills defensive unit hadn't levelled him as much as they did.

Now drunk and submerged in a deep layer of the earth's crust, Tagovailoa staggered into the arms of a pair of his larger teammates, the offensive linemen whose job it is to protect him from this eventuality. The body language of one of them suggested that he wanted now to protect the quarterback from himself.

This week, the NFL Players Association requested a review of the decision to allow him back into the game, a process which is meant to act as a guardrail and one which was implemented by both sides during pay and conditions negotiations. But what use a review when the evidence of our own eyes is negated by the reassurance of an NFL exec who stated mid-review on Wednesday that there was no sign yet that concussion protocol hadn't been adhered to? Nothing to see here.

How prescient the words of my buddy last weekend, so much so I suspect now he had an insight into what was coming down the track on Thursday. Covered much more expertly elsewhere in these pages, retired rugby players David Corkery, Declan Fitzpatrick and Ben Marshall initiated action against the IRFU for the concussion-related issues they are facing post-career.

Tagovailoa is part of a posse of young and talented quarterbacks who are changing the way the game is played and, crucially, removing any doubts over the supremacy of the NFL in American society and consciousness. Whereas there had been question marks over the long-term prospects of the game - both from a commercial and a participation point of view - the likes of Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes have ensured the most impressionable and youngest markets are positively enraptured.

Setting aside the negatives, these five are a breath of fresh air for those of us operating on an older and more jaded level. I know I'm not alone in latching onto these five as a way of cleansing myself from a QB of yore who has spent the latter half of September being exposed for the detrimental and entitled crank that he is.

Brett Favre famously played a record 321 consecutive games during a career which most prominently featured a Super Bowl victory at the Green Bay Packers. He also infamously claimed that by the strictest definition of the ill-effects of being struck down by larger men on the gridiron, he suffered 50 concussions a year during his 20 seasons as an NFLer.

But no concussion could ever explain away the pure malice with which he has allegedly operated his business dealings since he finally and reluctantly ended his playing career over a decade ago.

To summarise, state funds which were earmarked for the poorest people in the poorest of the United States, Mississippi, were redirected partly at his behest to his own pocket and a volleyball arena at his alma mater.

Favre played college football at Southern Mississippi and his daughter was - no shock here - a volleyball player during the time when he strongarmed state officials to steer $5m out of welfare coffers and into the bricks and mortar of a vanity project.

The entire murky affair is winding its way through the courts with some damning text messages forming a key part of the evidence against him and his co-conspirators.

I want to focus on a better man, though, and a nearly three-decade-old memory that happened around the same time Favre was getting his career going.

My uncle Billy, my cousin Hazel and I had Canal End tickets for the 1993 All-Ireland football final. These were the days when there was still an inevitability that a Cork success was a routine part of the big day.

And the opener would be all ours, too. A prospect-laden Meath minor team was convincingly beaten by the young men from Leeside, only two of whom would themselves go onto solid intercounty careers, Martin Cronin and Owen Sexton.

Thirteen-year-old me was starstruck in the rain by a pair of budding St Michael's icons in the starting 15: Ken O'Connell and David Dempsey. When that minor team came to visit Coláiste Chríost Rí with the cup, we sung Martin Cronin's name to our third year elder and future All-Ireland winner, Alan, who skipped along the corridor ahead of us to the Halla Mór, delighting in his personal claim via blood to our school star.

Sure, Cork had succumbed to Derry in the rain and misery of the big game. And yes, I was still fresh enough to view a red card as a shocking jolt to the senses. We are Cork, how could any of this happen?

The train journey home with Billy and Hazel brought with it more than enough from Croke Park to keep the memory strong and beautiful, in spite of the loss to Derry.

Billy passed away peacefully this week at home, newspaper in hand, comfortably sat. The oldest of the Riordans, he'll be badly missed. And the suddenness of his departure is offset by the added relief that he was able to be at the Páirc on Sunday to watch the Rockies win.

And there'll be an added layer of joy that he was accompanied to the game by his Erin's Own son-in-law, Liam. Billy even stuck around for the second semi-final to scout our county final opponents and it gives me no end of satisfaction to know that his ceaselessly positive nature means he moves on comfortably in the confidence that Blackrock will beat the Barrs on Sunday week.


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